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Dealing with Dread: A Buddhism/Nihilism Perspective

TW: death and associated themes

As a person who lives with a healthy dose of existential dread all the time, the despair, misery, giddiness, anxiety, gratefulness, sense of doom you might be feeling right about now is my operating temperature. I can only gently welcome you up here and tell you, it will be okay.

Or it won’t.

We will either continue on this earth. Or we won’t. At our baseline, we either live or we die, and the truth is, we have no real control over any of it because it’s in the future, and any number of things can happen. If I told you six years ago we’d be here today, would you have believed me?

Case in point.

Something happens to you when you know—really KNOW—that you have no control, that you’re kind of spinning through the universe doing the best you can until your existence on this planet ends.

You kind of freak out a little.

You go though all the stages of grief. Denial. This isn’t happening, It couldn’t happen here. Then anger. Why do I have to self-quarantine? Why should I be inconvenienced? Bargaining— Or is that what happens when there’s only one package of toilet paper left?

Anyway, you get the picture. And all these stages? They don’t happen in a neat order. You’ll find that like going from zero to 60, you can go from denial (this is definitely not happening) to a giddy sort of freedom (if it’s out of my control, I can stop worrying about it) to that same old nihilist dread (what’s the point if I can’t control anything?).

If you’re like me, at this point, you'll probably shift gears. You gotta get out of your emotional headspace and engage some logic. Humans are hard-wired to find reasons for things. Our earliest stories are attempts to explain our world.

So you might turn to different religions or beliefs, looking for answers. Some folks find them and stop there. I’m happy for them. But if you’re like me, and you find that we can’t really ever KNOW for sure, then you’ll likely arrive at one conclusion:

You have no control over the past. It’s done and over. You have no control over the future. You can only prepare and hope for the best (see the above case in point).

You can only control the now.

It’s what you do now that matters. It is literally the only thing you can control—how you act and react to things in the now. It’s terrifying, but also it’s very liberating because if the now is all you can control, you have two choices:

You can either worry about the past (shit you can’t control) and the future (more shit you can’t control), or you can live in the present. In the now. And that you can control.

Honestly, readers, if this isn't the end of the world, I want to look back and say I didn’t squander this extra time with my wife, with myself, my writing, my two dumb cats, my garden. And if it IS the end of the world, then I want to enjoy every experience, even the bad ones, because who the fuck knows what’s after this, right?

Having no control over the past/future sucks. But it can also be freeing.

There are also a number of things you can do in the now to help reduce the dread and isolation. I hope they help you too.

Focus on your physical state.

Sit with your feelings. Ask: where do they come from? Examine them. Tell yourself it’s all right to be anxious, upset, fearful. It’s natural and normal. Tell yourself it won’t last forever. If you find yourself thinking of the worst scenario, try to reverse it and think instead of the best scenario. Try to train yourself toward mindfulness. Name the things around you, their colors, their shapes, what they are. Say out loud what you’re feeling. Ground yourself in the now.

Reach out.

With social distancing, our social lives have gotten an instant makeover. Many people are taking to reaching out to friends in small, intimate groups. It helps to see other faces, to hear familiar voices, and to be able to put meaning behind those interactions. The world is so uncertain, but what I do know is this: Endlessly scrolling isn’t going to give you the connection you crave. Reach. Out. If you notice a friend hasn’t reached out, take the initiative. Some folks find it hard to initiate social interactions. 

Stop centering yourself

Realize that we hyper-individualized Americans are getting a crash course in giving a damn about others—and get on board. Check on your friends. Check on your neighbors. Protect yourself and others. Support your local businesses. In public, wear a mask if you can. Educate yourself. Advocate for change. If you can, STAY HOME. Only by working together and caring about others can we get through this. Caring for others also gives us a purpose and makes us feel less adrift in an uncertain world.

Be grateful

Many of us are also getting a crash course in life’s ephemerality, so now more than ever, it’s important to be grateful for what we have. Whether it’s a supportive spouse, food on the table, a remote job, or just a really beautiful sunset, being grateful helps us feel more positive emotions. Studies show that gratitude can also strengthen relationships, relieve stress, and promote mental health.

Be gentle with yourself and others

Realize that this situation is not normal. Keep yourself informed but don’t live there. Turn off the internet for a while. If you can, avoid putting additional pressures on yourself: you don’t have to write the Great American Novel, you don’t have to be a boss at homeschooling. We are in a crisis situation. Be gentle with yourself. Be gentle with others. We’re all going through this together.

Please know I’m thinking of you all in this difficult time.



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